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Rhinos rally to take Challenge Cup at eighth attempt in 15 years

From the second Wembley was serenaded with the first note of rugby league’s spine-tingling anthem “Abide With Me”, it seemed to act as a reminder to Leeds Rhinos to not let the opportunity pass them by again.

A tradition of the sport, stretching back decades, the hymn can have a strange effect on players standing in the tunnel, as the adrenaline builds and the heart begins to race.

Within Leeds’ ranks were five players who had endured heartbreak on this occasion for the past decade; Kevin Sinfield, Rob Burrow, Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Ryan Atkins, and Danny Maguire. It was the latter who kicked the drop goal to ensure victory in the final minutes of the game.

It took, however, just a couple of minutes to make their mark on the match, with Castleford dropping the ball in their 20 metre, as the Rhinos imposed themselves in earnest. Winning another set of six play-the-balls, the Tigers’ sliding defence was non-existent as quick hands from Leeds put winger Tom Briscoe in to score in the corner. A well-taken Sinfield conversion looked like a sign of things to come.

Castleford, responded just minutes later, as the proverbial pendulum swung in their favour. A set play involving a Mark Sneyd grubber invited loose forward Daryl Clark to wrong-foot his marker and cross the whitewash, though having earned an assist, the former failed to add the extras.

From one end to the other Leeds bounced back; Maguire has scored harder tries throughout his career, though it was Burrow whose clever lofted dink caught full back Luke Dorn with sun in his eyes, as Maguire went unchallenged to catch and cross for the second, with Sinfield again sweeping over the conversion.

At 12-4 Leeds were in control and kept Castleford pinned back in their own half. Burrow and Maguire, magicians of the game, were irrepressible at half back, as the Rhinos showed composure to pick away at the Tigers defence. Midway through the first half, it was the turn of man mountain Ryan Hall to get in on the act, as with the overlap created he held off winger Kirk Dixon like a rag-doll to cross single-handed.

To the Tigers’ credit, they came out for the second half pumped up for the challenge. Despite trailing by 12 points, it was Oliver Holmes who stole the initiative, with Leeds perhaps flat-footed, as Dorn created space, combining with Shenton who danced past his marker to put his teammate in. With Liam Finn adding the extras, it was game on all of a sudden.

Thereafter it could have gone either way, with the following 20 minutes key for both sides. However, the experience within Rhinos ranks paid dividends, and doing the basics well, aided by a fantastic and mature kicking game from Sinfield, personified patience.

Waiting for the opportunity to strike, with the trailing team tiring, after a run-around 10 metres from the line, the ball was shipped out to Hall, who powered his way over for his second, bouncing bodies off him as he grounded. It was three out of four from Sinfield as two points were added.

Castleford responded bravely; Frankie Mariano throwing his body on the line to charge down a Sinfield kick in Rhinos’ own half, though the resulting set of six came to nothing. As Brian McDermott’s side went down the other end, this time it was Maguire who offered him up to his skipper for kicking duty, and the number six converted a drop goal. Having picked himself up from sustaining three broken ribs just moments earlier, he showed great composure to put the game beyond doubt in the final minutes. Relief clearly evident in his celebration, the Rhinos could relax.

Almost as if the lead line in the hymn “Abide with Me” was significant to the game’s outcome, and Leeds’ previous six attempts, the message appeared to have finally sunk in. Guts, determination, resilience and desire proved the difference on the day, though the Tigers’ time will come. Leeds are 11/4 to do the double and lift the Super League Grand Final trophy.